The regular season was too easy. Why, they clinched the division title with six whole games to go. The first four games of the playoffs were a breeze _ a 3-1 lead and a clear path to the pennant.
So it only figures that the Atlanta Braves, authors of a series of fantastic finishes a year ago, would lose two straight and wait until there were three outs left in the seventh game of the National League playoffs to make their magic this time.
Trailing by two runs going into the ninth, the Braves rallied to beat the Pirates 3-2 and earn a return trip to the World Series.
Terry Pendleton sparked the rally when he led off with a double into the rightfield corner. David Justice reached when Jose Lind mishandled his infield grounder. Pirates starter Doug Drabek, impressive until this point, then walked Sid Bream on four pitches to load the bases with none out.
Ron Gant greeted reliever Stan Belinda with a warning-track fly ball that scored Pendleton to cut the lead to 2-1. Pinch-hitter Brian Hunter hit a soft liner behind second for the second out.
Then Francisco Cabrera singled to leftfield, scoring Justice and Bream. Bream slid in just under the tag after Barry Bonds' throw.
For the Braves, this is their second straight NL pennant and their sixth overall. The Milwaukee Braves won back-to-back pennants in 1957-58, beating the Yankees in the 1957 Series and losing to them in 1958.
The Pirates are now part of an infamous club _ losers of three straight playoff series. They join the 1976-77-78 Philadelphia Phillies and 1976-77-78 Kansas City Royals.
This was also the third time the Pirates went to the deciding game of a playoff series and failed _ losing Game 5 to Cincinnati in 1972 and Game 7 to the Braves last season.
They are now 2-7 in playoff appearances.
The Pirates won 96 games during the season, despite losing stars Bobby Bonilla and John Smiley, and their third straight division title.
With Bonds and Drabek eligible for free-agency, it seems unlikely they will get a fourth chance.
The early innings were marked by power pitching, spectacular fielding and limited scoring opportunities.
The Pirates loaded the bases against Smoltz in the first inning, but came away with only one run.
Leadoff man Alex Cole walked. Jay Bell fouled out attempting to bunt. Andy Van Slyke ripped a shot down the first-base line that bounced over the glove of Bream and ended up with a double, with Cole holding at third.
The Braves intentionally walked Barry Bonds, who was 4-for-9 in the last two games. Orlando Merced, the left-handed-hitting half of Pittsburgh's first-base platoon, lofted a deep fly to right to score Cole with the game's first run. Smoltz escaped further damage when Jeff King fouled out.
The Braves right-hander settled into an impressive groove starting in the second inning, retiring 10 in a row until Jose Lind doubled with one out in the fifth. Lind was stranded when Smoltz struck out Drabek and got Cole to fly to right.
The Pirates broke through again in the sixth and extended their lead to 2-0. Bell led off with a double to left (the Pirates' playoff record-tying 19th of the series) and scored on Van Slyke's slow single up the middle. Smoltz wriggled out of more trouble when Bonds popped up, Merced flew to right and King flied to left.
Smoltz, who had beaten the Pirates in Games 1 and 4, left after six innings, having allowed two runs on four hits, walking two and striking out four.
Drabek, meanwhile, held the Braves to just one hit _ Damon Berryhill's third-inning double _ through the first five innings.
He ran into trouble in the sixth. Mark Lemke led off with a single to right, and pinch-hitter Jeff Treadway hit a bloop opposite-field single to left. Then Otis Nixon dropped a bunt that bounced over Drabek's head and fell in for a single to load the bases with none out.
But Drabek also escaped. Jeff Blauser lined to third, allowing King to double off Lemke. Pendleton flied to left to end the threat.
Before that, the Braves' best chance was Berryhill's double to lead off the third. But he was stranded when Lemke, after failing to bunt, grounded out to third, Smoltz hit a soft liner to second and Nixon grounded to third.
A spectacular diving catch by Pirates centerfielder Van Slyke of Gant's drive to right-center prevented a Braves' opportunity in the second. King's diving stop of a first-inning smash grounder denied Jeff Blauser a hit.
The game was delayed for 11 minutes before the start of the home second when home-plate umpire John McSherry had to leave the field because he was experiencing dizziness. First-base ump Randy Marsh took his place behind the plate.
The Pirates loaded the bases again in the seventh, without much of their own doing, but didn't score. Mike LaValliere led off with a single and, after a fly out, was bunted to second. The Braves then intentionally walked pinch-hitter Lloyd McClendon and brought in right-hander Pete Smith. He unintentionally walked Bell to load the bases. The Braves brought in left-hander Steve Avery to face Van Slyke, and he got him to fly to center.
The Braves challenged again in the seventh. Bream doubled with one out and Gant walked, but Berryhill and pinch-hitter Lonnie Smith flied out.
Some flashy defense by the Braves kept the Pirates from adding to their lead in the eighth. Bonds led off with a single, but was forced at second when shortstop Blauser picked up Merced's grounder and flipped to second. King doubled down the rightfield line, but Merced was nailed at the plate by a perfect throw from Justice. Then Gant secured the third out with a running catch of LaValliere's sinking liner to left.